Commander, Party of Four?

Posted in Feature on July 16, 2021

By Glenn Jones

Glenn has worked in games since 2007. He joined Magic R&D as an editor in 2015 and became a game designer in 2018.

Today, I'll be telling tales and spilling secrets from the design of the Commander decks for Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. Before I dive into the product, I want to share the primary design team:

  • Me (lead)
  • Ethan Fleischer
  • Mclane Crowell
  • Ken Naglehur
  • Robert Schuster

Our design cycle for this product was a bit of an experiment in more ways than one. First, this team worked the product from start to finish. Second, we began working in March 2020, so in addition to innovating new cards and ideas, we also had to innovate entirely new processes! Kudos to this group for hanging tough, and an honorary shout-out to Corey Bowen who was an indispensable resource for us.

Looking for Group

Going in, I knew I wanted the face cards for these Commander decks to be an adventuring party—what could be a more resonant accompaniment to the booster set? The main set had solid thematic mechanics as well, with "venture into the dungeon" for white-blue-black, "Treasure" for black-red, and Dragons based in red. Since we often balance the total colors for Commander decks, this meant that Dragons and our fourth deck would both be green and not include black. We also didn't want to do any color combinations that appeared in Strixhaven Commander, so that meant red-green-white plus green-blue wasn't an option. We did consider, and even did a little deck building, with green-blue-red plus green-white, but once we moved into developing the party's characters, we thought it was a worse match than red-green plus green-white-blue for our composition since we wanted white-blue-black and black-red to both be spellcasters.

Like any adventuring party, we desired a fun mix of characters. We also wanted to represent a baseline D&D experience for Magic players who might branch out, and one that would have D&D players nodding in approval.

This part of the set was a novel experience for me. I've been one of the go-to lore experts for the Set Design team since before I was on the Set Design team, but I've only played D&D a handful of times, and never a full campaign. I did a lot of self-study and listening as we brainstormed, and we also had to avoid stepping on the toes of the main set as they shifted their own characters, classes, and colors during Set Design.

Here's a summary of where we wound up and why:

  • White-blue-black had a lot of options to tie into venture, but we loved the idea of "reanimator" with a Wizard or a Cleric.
  • For black-red, we wanted to do a Tiefling. Mechanically, "exilecast" felt like a great hook that replicated the otherworldly magic we'd expect from a Warlock, and Pact of the Fiend was creatively exciting. We did consider Rogue, but it was more blue-black for Adventures in the Forgotten Realms.
  • We never really looked back from Dragonborn Barbarian. We knew we'd be able to make a totally unique Dragon that played like no other, especially by leaning into the Path of the Ancestral Guardian.
  • We started green-white-blue from scratch, looking for one of the missing ways our party could better represent Dungeons & Dragons. None of the above commanders showcased the "gear" side of roleplaying games, so we decided to go with a heavily armored paladin and use the Oath of the Ancients to provide a good green tie.

Of course, every adventuring party needs a cadre of foes to defeat!

Commander decks always include some alternate options to lead the deck, and Adventures in the Forgotten Realms Commander is no different. Each of them was conceived as some kind of "monster" that the heroic face commander might fight against. These came together quickly—what were the most iconic creatures we could choose? Beholder, mind flayer, and dragon were all obvious choices. We considered a few for the last one, mostly because we weren't sure where the Dragon should go—the white-blue-black Mind Flayer and black-red Beholder were easy. Ultimately, we went with the Frost Giant for green-white-blue. I love a good excuse to design commanders at higher mana values—we hit the three to five range so often—and each monster was an opportunity to go big.

Multiple Players, Multiple Dice

From here, we looked for cool things we could do in our set that the main set either wasn't doing or couldn't do. Our most ambitious, of course, being die rolling! Or, more specifically, evolving the way the main set was using dice. We did this in two ways:

Skill checks. This mechanic was something Jules Robins had tried in the main set but wound up removing. The idea is you roll a d20, add some value to it based on the game, and then check a roll table as usual. We loved it and thought a cycle was a no-brainer addition to Adventures in the Forgotten Realms Commander.

"Other" dice. We lived our values on this topic, with many members of R&D debating the significance of having every polyhedral in an adventurer's armory. Ultimately, Aaron Forsythe, Mark Heggen, and I met a few times to discuss how we could deliver. We weren't too worried about access; these days everyone carries the collected history of the planet in their pocket, so an app for dice is a small ask.

We took several shots at dice-rolling cards—some of the more enjoyable one-offs are still in the set. But we wanted something purposeful and unique to carry these cards with different sizes of dice, and eventually landed on using a set of cards that asked players to "roll two dice" and assign the values to the card's effects. I honestly can't remember who came up with the first card using this mechanic, but I do remember that it was Valiant Endeavor (though, the functionality was different). This mechanic solved two problems simultaneously.

  1. It decreased the variance. We didn't want to make any "Stitch in Times" ourselves, but roll tables weren't an appropriate solution for non-d20 cards. Using multiple dice let us reduce the potential for total loss.
  2. It increased agency. These two things are related, but people can be reluctant to play with high-variance cards even when they're strong because they don't want to give themselves up to fate. By introducing some post-roll choices and adaptation to the resolution of the effect, the cards became more fun.

Comment Confusion

I wanted to end this column with a little game—something of a puzzle. Below are several actual comments from the card set files we printed in this product. See if you can guess the card from just the comment, then click to reveal the card and a tidbit about its design.

Glenn Jones: I'm trying to prevent every possible way a card could turn sideways.

Answer

Immovable Rod

As you can see, we didn't go that route. A blue version of this card did literally hold any permanent in place on the table, but we didn't think it was an enjoyable enough card to play with for one of the better-known items in D&D. We made a more proactive design, and eventually white at the suggestion of Gavin Verhey.

Taymoor Rehman: Hydradoodle lives again!

Answer

Neverwinter Hydra card image

I imagine this one was pretty easy! For a brief time, this card was functionally identical to the Unstable card, but we found points of differentiation that we liked.

Glenn: To answer for future reference, it's to be able to punish someone if they kill you.

Answer

Hellish Rebuke card image

My wife played an elf warlock in our most recent D&D session and just loved using Hellish Rebuke. I wanted to make a version for Magic that was a uniquely punishing spell so that it could bring to Commander games the same delight the D&D spell always brought her. If your opponent has a Hellish Rebuke available to them, you'd better tread lightly!

Jules Robins: Hexproof definitely reads better, but I think more total fun if this gives armor {oN} (even for a fairly large amount).

Answer

Winged Boots card image

Back in the before times, I had some wonderful conversations with Shivam Bhatt and others about Commander design at MagicFest Vegas after the release of Commander (2019 Edition). One of the things I've been excited to do more is poke at the popularity of cards that have become staples by creating colored versions that give players the option of replacement (or redundancy, if they insist).

Winged Boots was already in my design archive at that time, and Adventures in the Forgotten Realms Commander was a perfect home for it.

Oh, and "ward" used to be called "armor."

Glenn: Now white, with (White Color Pie Councilor) Ari Nieh's tentative blessing.

Answer

Thorough Investigation card image

My wife might be known for her Rebukes, but I'm "one of those people" who insists on investigating everything, all the time. I'm also a big fan of the actual investigate mechanic, and it seemed like a great fit for the kind of mechanical melding that's only possible in Commander products. And Modern Horizons, I guess.

This is still one of our tamer white card-drawing effects—you already know that we're over a year removed from the set's design, and many designers, myself included, have continued to take stronger shots with each product.

Robert Schuster: *laughs in warlock*

Answer

Hurl Through Hell card image

Kudos if you got this one, I mostly just wanted an excuse to post Robert's joke.

This card is interesting in that its redness makes it worse at thieving than black would be. We could make this card mono-black and remove the time limit at some rate, but it would have to cost a bit more to be fun. We considered nerfing it to make it more red—dealing a fixed amount of damage or similar—but ultimately this card was so clean and so popular that we stuck with it. I never considered a monocolor card, because this particular spell seems a little obnoxious to make that widely available. It's the same reason we made Fractured Identity white-blue instead of blue.

Glenn: "Will he do it? Will he really just make Territorial Hellkite again?"

Answer

Chaos Dragon card image

I could, and I did. Territorial Hellkite was a challenging card to template when I was an editor, and back then I wish I could've just used dice to sort it out. This card is also unusual in that it requires opponents to participate in the die rolling, whether they wanted to use those kinds of cards or not. We were careful to avoid that for the most part, but decided it was worthwhile here (and pretty fun to roll).

Jules: Sweet. All aboard the Hydra train!

Answer

Belt of Giant Strength card image

I don't really have any cool Belt stories, I just thought it was a fun clue to puzzle out. This card's one of the weirder "simple cards" I've ever made, but I like the way it gets the gears of people (like Jules) turning.

Robert: Should this be able to eat itself?

Answer

Bag of Devouring card image

Bag of Devouring was a big lesson for me with this product. We poll rares for appeal internally, and the version of this Bag I sent out to the rare poll got smashed. People hated it! I was surprised, because I thought the concept of "evil Bag of Holding" was enough to buy it a lot of goodwill, but I was wrong. It's not enough to be the cool thing—the card should feel like the cool thing, too. That's something I've stressed a lot in some of my products this year, like [REDACTED].

Glenn: I think I love the "Channel Divinity" joke enough to die on this hill.

Answer

Radiant Solar card image

For a long time, this card was named Divinity Angel and the discard effect was a channel ability. Get it? In the end, we were doing some specific stuff with ability words in Adventures in the Forgotten Realms as a whole, and channel was deemed too weird and confusing. I just took the loss here and moved on. In hindsight, I agree with the detractors—come on past Glenn, you're better than this. Err, were. Wait, were you? That guy seems crazy unreliable now that I think about it.

Ken Nagle: I can get back a Control Magic with this!

Answer

Mantle of the Ancients card image

This card was popular and quite powerful if you could resolve it, so we really wanted to make sure it wound up fun. I even moved it from green-white to white at the suggestion of David McDarby, because he thought (and I agreed) that it could do more good for white in Commander that way. However, using this card to get back Mind Controls wasn't particularly fun, nor did it capture the flavor of the card correctly. Ken caught that, and we got the template fixed.

Andrew Brown: Lol not the words I expected to read in the first sentence of a card.

Answer

Share the Spoils card image

The idea for this card came from a strange main set card that got cut, so Jules sent the design over to us. One of my favorite things to do as a Commander designer is to find ways that I can execute a card that would never work in a Standard booster set, and "losing the game matters" is just such an effect.

Adventures in the Forgotten Realms Commander will always be a memorable product for me personally, as its design and release bookend one of the strangest and most stressful periods of my life (and everyone else's on the planet). There's a lot going on in the world, but I'm glad Adventures in the Forgotten Realms is releasing at a time when it can bring joy to its audience and be played the way Richard Garfield intended—at a table with your friends. I can't wait to see the other products I've poured my heart into over the last year get the same treatment.

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